Obama's Reagan parallels are falling away

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama prepares to meet with members of his staff in the Oval Office, Sept. 9, 2010.

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  • Federal Reserve lowered its forecast for 2011 GDP growth from a range of 3.1% to 3.3% to a much slower 2.7% to 2.9%

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  • Since #Reagan blamed Jimmy #Carter for the country's problems, #Obama should do likewise with #Bush @JonahNRO

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  • Funny how the supposedly greatest communicator since Reagan is always suffering from a communications problem @JonahNRO

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5.1, 9.3, 8.1, 8.5, 8, 7.1 and 3.9.

While that might sound like a controversial series of Olympic curling scores, these numbers in fact add up to a grave problem for Barack Obama.

They are the quarterly percentage gains in gross domestic product starting in 1983 through to Election Day 1984. And they aren't the only significant numbers. In 1984, real income for individuals grew by more than 6% and inflation plummeted. The unemployment rate in November 1984 was still 7.2%-- relatively high-- but it had dropped from 10.8% in December 1982, and it was clear the momentum was for even lower unemployment. "Staying the course" with Ronald Reagan made sense to most people, which is why he won re-election in a 49-state landslide.

"It seems that the White House has discovered that, barring an entirely unforeseen economic boom, the Reagan analogy is a non-starter for them." -- Jonah Goldberg

Sadly for Obama-- but far worse for the country-- that kind of growth seems like a pipe dream. Last month, the Federal Reserve lowered its forecast for 2011 GDP growth from a range of 3.1% to 3.3%, made just two months earlier, to a much slower 2.7% to 2.9%. And it revised downward its projections for 2012 and 2013 as well.

For Democrats who insist that James Carville's mantra "It's the economy, stupid" is the key to unlocking any election, these numbers couldn't be more sobering. But for the Democrats and liberal pundits who've spent the last two years looking to Reagan for inspiration, the data should have the same sobering effect as being thwacked in the face with a semi-frozen flounder. You don't hear much about it now, but not long ago the White House was taking a lot of comfort in the Reagan example. According to a Timecover story "Why Obama (Hearts) Reagan," the president was fixated with emulating the Gipper. He quizzed historians about him. He took a Reagan biography with him for his Christmas vacation. He even wrote a glowing op-ed about Reagan for this newspaper.

As the November elections approached, White House strategists and liberal writers spun the Reagan precedent as a reason to remain optimistic about Obama's re-election chances. Reagan had lost 26 House seats (and zero in the Senate) in his first midterm elections yet went on to win re-election handily. Liberal writers such as The New Republic's John Judis insisted Obama could limit his losses by emulating Reagan's communications strategy.

Reportedly, Obama's speechwriters even studied Reagan's speeches for tips on how to frame the choice. They concluded, since Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter for the country's problems, Obama should do likewise with Bush. Reagan said Americans faced a choice between "going back" to the old policies and pressing ahead with new ones. Obama parroted the same line: "This is a choice between the policies that led us into the mess, or the policies that are leading out of the mess," Obama said in a campaign appearance for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "America doesn't go backwards, we go forwards."

Such "Reaganesque" rhetoric didn't save Democrats from a "shellacking" (to borrow Obama's word) at the polls (though in a decidedly mixed blessing the Democrats did hold on to Reid's seat). Obama lost more than twice as many seats in the House (63) as Reagan did and 6 in the Senate.

Tellingly, Obama explained away the electoral rebuke not on his policies but on his inability to communicate the truth to the public. It's funny how the supposedly greatest communicator since Reagan-- or Cicero, depending on who you listen to-- is always suffering from a communications problem.

And this points to the real reason why the Reagan parallel just doesn't work. As much as it may annoy Obama and his supporters to hear it, the reason why Reagan's rhetoric was effective is that voters believed it was matched to successful policies. Meanwhile many of Obama's top priorities-- health care reform, green energy, etc.-- have had, at best, a tangential connection to the economic recovery and arguably, as in the case of energy, they've made things worse. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has rightly pointed out that even Reagan's communications strategy didn't improve media coverage or his standing in public opinion polls. Reagan's popularity recovered with the economic recovery. (The media coverage, however, remained relentlessly hostile until a few years ago.)

In recent weeks, it seems that the White House has discovered that, barring an entirely unforeseen economic boom, the Reagan analogy is a non-starter for them. That spells an ironic challenge for Obama, because it probably means that he will have to run a base election whereby he galvanizes his core supporters and hopes red meat and turnout numbers will save him. In short, it means the president will be emulating George W. Bush's re-election strategy even as he pins all his problems on George W. Bush.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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